The Wick Within the Flame

After recently re-reading Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, Richard Crary found his appreciation of the novel undimmed a decade on from its first publication. “It is, in many ways, what used to be called ‘wisdom literature,’” he writes, “yet it is also a marvelous, and subtle, literary performance. And, it seems to me, a wholly appropriate literary response to our current situation, in the sense in which I have here attempted to channel or expand on Josipovici and others.”

I agree with both judgments and especially the last. Perhaps due to the vividness of its pastoral setting or the sophisticated and convincing ventriloquism through which Robinson breathes life into her narrator, the Reverend John Ames, Gilead tends to be read as a work of regional realism, a skilful observation of life in small-town Iowa in the 1950s. But there’s a conceit to both the narrative and the act of narration that imbues every word with extra complexity. “What is afflicting Mallarmé, Hofmannsthal, Kafka, and Beckett,” Josipovici writes in What Ever Happened to Modernism?, “is the sense that they feel impelled to write, this being the only way they know to be true to their own natures, yet at the same time they find that in doing so they are being false to the world — imposing a shape on it and giving it a meaning which it doesn’t have — and thus, ultimately, being false to themselves.” In Gilead, Ames is similarly impelled to write and similarly suffers a sense that he is being false to himself, although his suffering comes with a twist on that of the writers named above.

Gilead takes the form of a long letter that the ageing Ames writes to his young son, to be read by the boy when Ames is dead. Knowing that he will be an absent father for much of his son’s life, Ames begins writing with the intention of articulating his son’s “begats” in much the way that such things appear in the Bible: “Adam begat Seth; and Seth, Enos,” and so on. He begins writing, then, because he is impelled in some sense to transcend death, to speak to his son from beyond the grave, but when he sits down and to put words on the page, he finds that he is impelled to write about very different matters. “Sometimes I almost forget my purpose in writing this,” he admits in a preface to one such interruption to his intentions, and Gilead is replete with remarks on events that Ames describes almost in real time insofar as they take place concurrent to his act of writing: see, for example, pages 10, 20, 42, 72, 62, and 118-119 of the 2005 Picador paperback. Gilead also contains a great deal of writing about the nature of religious belief and of belief in the power of words — which almost amount to one and the same thing for Ames, since, as he says, “[f]or me writing has always felt like praying, even when I wasn’t writing prayers” — as well as Ames’ meditations on the difficulties of finding a way of writing that allows him to be true to himself. “You must not judge what I know by what I find words for,” he warns his son at one point, and later: “I am attempting to describe what I have never before attempted to put into words. I have made myself a little weary in the struggle.” If Gilead is indeed to be read as “wisdom literature,” passages of this sort are surely the locus of much of the wisdom it has to offer.

But quite unlike Mallarmé, Hofmannsthal, Kafka, Beckett, and others whose struggles find an echo in those of the Reverend Ames, Ames’ act of writing in Gilead occurs in the shadow of a much larger and longer-term act of writing that has already taken place. His struggles, then, are the struggles of a man who strives as much to write something free of artifice as to find a way of writing that differs from the way in which he wrote the things he has already written. By the time he begins his letter to his son, Ames has been a small-town preacher for the better part of fifty years and, as he reveals early on,

I wrote my sermons out word for word. There are boxes of them in the attic, a few recent years of them in stacks in the closet. … Pretty nearly my whole life’s work is in those boxes, which is an amazing thing to reflect on. … I think every day about going through those old sermons of mine to see if there are one or two I might want you to read sometime, but there are so many… If I had the time, I could read my way through fifty years of my innermost life.

Had Ames wished to make it so, Gilead could have amounted to a record of his encounter with, and editing of, the past he has already committed to paper — a dialogue with his younger self, conducted by way of returning to those sermons to summarise, amend, or respond to them. But Gilead is no more that sort of record than it is the genealogical record that Ames originally intended it to produce. It is its own, new thing: implicitly a record of Ames’ failure to write of biographical affairs, implicitly a record of his refusal to write or rewrite his innermost life, and more or less explicitly an intermittent record of whatever it is that wrestles its way into his mind when he sits down to write and struggles with the task he has set himself.

Gilead is therefore, in a sense, a projection onto the page of a consciousness as it tarries, dwells, wallows in three distinct moments simultaneously: first the moment in which past events worthy of discussion are recalled by Ames; then the moment in which a new idea or sudden insight intrudes upon his recollection of events; and finally the moment in which he attempts to channel the intrusion into words, elucidating it and elaborating upon it until, intertwined with traces of the first two moments, it acquires the character of a sensual experience and becomes an abstraction clothed in material textures. Although he sets out to “impos[e] a shape on [the world] and giv[e] it a meaning which it doesn’t have,” Ames recurrently allows the world to impose upon his writing in ways that sometimes illuminate but more often challenge the meaning he finds in it. The result, at once retrospective and introspective, is a novel in which Ames’ distractions from and difficulties with the work he is attempting to write do not obstruct his expression of his “true nature” but rather allow recurrent glimpses of his “true nature” as he conceives of it. “When people come to speak to me,” he writes,

whatever they say, I am struck by a kind of incandescence in them, the ‘I’ whose predicate can be ‘love’ or ‘fear’ or ‘want,’ and whose object can be ‘someone’ or ‘nothing’ and it won’t really matter, because the loveliness is just in that presence, shaped around ‘I’ like a flame on a wick, emanating itself in grief and guilt and joy and whatever else. But quick, and avid, and resourceful.

If Ames himself is the “I” in Gilead, his distractions from and difficulties with writing are intermittently the objects of his attention, and those objects are woven into the letter he writes to his son in ways that invite him to detail the intricacies of any number of predicates. Insofar as those are the predicates through which, according to Ames’ own metaphor, one can truly glimpse the wick of the consciousness they burn upon, Gilead enacts the afflictions of Mallarmé, Hofmannsthal, and their ilk — albeit in service of a narrative conceit that enables them to work to produce effects quite distinct from the despair of those writers.

One response to “The Wick Within the Flame”

  1. Hi! I only today saw this wonderful post (thanks to Stephen Mitchelmore tweeting a link to it). Thank you for it. It’s gratifying to see you agree, a, but also, b, that you were able to explore so marvelously what I was only able to suggest. Cheers.

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